AUTHOR James Miller took a Wick audience on a journey through Highland transport history this week in an illustrated talk about the origins of the A9.
It crisscrossed three centuries of social change and ever greater civil engineering feats as the old drove routes and military roads gradually made way for the modern trunk road we use today.
Miller, originally from Keiss and now based near Inverness, gave a fascinating hour-long presentation at Mackays Hotel in a joint fundraiser for the Wick Society and Wick Paths Group.
His talk was based on his latest book, The Finest Road in the World, published last year by Birlinn, telling the story of travel and transport in the north of Scotland.
The title was inspired by a sardonic comment made in 1762 by Bishop Robert Forbes after his first visit to Caithness. Crossing the Ord on horseback, the bishop clearly found it an unnerving experience as he “looked down ye dreadful precipice to the Sea”.
Speaking after his talk, Miller revealed that there had been some initial resistance to his choice of title.
“When I started the book I didn’t know what the title was going to be, then I read that phrase by Bishop Robert and I explain it in the foreword,” he said.
“I had a wee bit of a battle to get the title accepted – I had to dig my heels in a bit. This happens. There is always a big debate over titles. Does a title sell a book? Is it a catchy kind of phrase that sticks in people’s minds?”
Asked about his motivation for writing the book, Miller said: “I thought it would be interesting to write about travel and transport in the Highlands and put everything into one volume. There is some great source material.
“There have been very few books about roads as such, but it’s quite an interesting angle to take to get into history. We tend to take the road for granted, but it wasn’t always there.
“I discovered for example that in the old days, before cars, people had a much wider choice of what route to take. You think in the old days people didn’t travel very much, but they travelled quite a lot.
“Stagecoaches had a heyday of 50 or 60 years. It’s kind of fun, but it’s also a reflection of the same kinds of things that concern us now with motor transport – getting stuck in snow, breakdowns, accidents. There were fatal accidents too.”
Miller is the author of around 20 books including Scapa, The Dambuilders, The North Atlantic Front, Salt in the Blood, Swords for Hire, A Fine White Stoor, The Foresters, Brimster Tales, The Gathering Stream: The Story of the Moray Firth, Inverness: A History, and A Wild and Open Sea: The Story of the Pentland Firth.
He said there had been a good reaction to The Finest Road in the World: “It has gone quite well. I’ve been giving talks and signing copies, and it was shortlisted for the Highland Book Prize which was a great surprise to me.”
Tuesday’s talk drew an attendance of about 70 and raised £323 which will be divided between the Wick Society and Wick Paths Group.